The man behind the mask

Al Terry, a longtime volunteer umpire at Union City Little League in Naugatuck, keeps a close eye on a play at third base during the Big League World Series in 2009 in Easely, S.C. -CONTRIBUTED

NAUGATUCK — Ask Al Terry why he’s still a volunteer umpire after 34 years in the Little League program and his answer is simple: it’s about the kids.

Little League Baseball and Softball relies and thrives on volunteer local league administrators, dedicated coaches and supportive parents. Terry, a lifelong Naugatuck resident, contributes as a member of the sport’s “third team” — the umpires — at Union City Little League.

Calling balls and strikes, making safe and out calls and judging the fine line of a fair or foul ball has become Terry’s annual pursuit of officiating the National Pastime’s youngest level — Little League. Terry is the man behind the mask, volunteering his time on the field, making sure children get a fair shake and fun experience on the ballfields off of Morris Street every spring and summer.

In a position that historically draws the ire of coaches and spectators, Terry has been providing the children on Naugatuck’s east end with a steady presence enforcing, and often teaching, the rules of the game. And he does it all for an occasional hot dog after the game.

“Little League has a different atmosphere,” explained Terry, who serves on Union City’s board of directors as umpire-in-chief. “There’s a certain sense of pride that you’re volunteering to umpire and helping kids out.”

Terry started as a coach in 1979 when his oldest son, Al Jr., started playing at the minors level.  By 1984, Terry moved up to coach in the majors and learned there was a need for umpires in the minors.

He saw an opportunity and gave it a shot.

“I wanted to help and I figured it would give me a chance to see the younger kids play, then I could draft them when they moved up to the majors,” Terry said with a chuckle. “But I always enjoyed the watching the kids get better at the sport.”

Terry quickly became hooked on officiating. By the early 1990s, Terry focused more on umpiring after his youngest son graduated from Little League.

“I figured I’d umpire for a few more years,” Terry said. “And I’m still here.”

Union City Little League President Dennis Sigetti described Terry as a “true volunteer.”

“When I came in to coaching at Union City about 15 years ago, Al was umpiring,” Sigetti said. “He’s a very good ump. Very professional. I can remember talking to him quite a few times over the years, and he always made you feel comfortable on the field. He’s always giving back. Unselfish to say the least.”

Terry soon joined more seasoned umpires and began umpiring all-star games in the Naugatuck Valley. Before long, Terry was officiating Little League state tournament games with his partners, Lou Tafuto and Randy Leonard.

Terry has been awarded by Little League to umpire at the highest levels of the program.

In 1999, he was selected to umpire the Little League Junior Softball East Regional in Syracuse, N.Y. Three years later, he was tabbed to work the Little League Junior Baseball East Regional in Tinton Falls, N.J.

Terry was chosen to umpire the Little League Baseball East Regional in Bristol in 2007. Two years later, he umpired the Big League World Series in Easely, S.C.

“You get to meet a lot of umpires and there’s a lot of camaraderie,” said Terry, recalling some of the umps he’s met in his travels and the many hours spent at the preseason umpire clinics held at the Little League Baseball Eastern Region Headquarters in Bristol. “I enjoy seeing a lot of the same people throughout the year and at different fields. You can umpire with a guy and see him 11 years later and reminisce about games you worked together.”

Terry has also earned the respect of his fellow umpires. Darrin Bessecheck, the Little League Connecticut District 3 umpire-in-chief, has worked with Terry for the last 15 years.

“Al is always willing to help out and volunteer when called upon within our district,” Bessecheck said. “You can tell he enjoys working with the kids.  He has fun but at the same time he takes great pride in his professionalism on the field. Earning a World Series assignment in Little League is the highest honor of umpiring at this level, and Al deserved that honor.”

When asked the hardest part of being an umpire, Terry said he maintains a simple strategy on the field.

“I go into a zone and make the fairest calls I can make,” Terry explained. “I don’t find anything hard about it.”